After Hurricane Sandy, we saw many eerie, beautiful photographs of unlit lower Manhattan. The pictures of New York in darkness reminds us that as technology advances we often experience a kind of loss. Before the early 60s, New York City was truly dark after sunset. Sodium Street Lights, which are much brighter than the old fashioned incandescent lights they replaced, of course made the city safer. Still, there is a certain romance about walking on the side streets of old New York. You could look up at the sky and see the Milky Way. A lit cigarette could actually be a significant source of illumination. You could even imagine espionage agents meeting in front of a brownstone stoop to exchange secrets of world historic importance.
The 1960s ended the decades of rapid change in the city landscape. The destruction of Penn Station marked the end of an era. I remember a conversation I had with a friend of my parents. I said, “The new Pan Am building is really ugly.” He dismissed my complaint, “Progress is inevitable.” People began to realize that new is not necessarily better. Jane Jacobs argued that human scale architecture and neighborhoods were preferable to massive urban renewal projects. Residents of lower Manhattan successfully resisted the construction of new freeways through Washington Square Park. New homeowners in Park Slope and other neighborhoods began a process of renovation and improvement that is still going strong four decades later. Young artists in Soho started to repurpose the old industrial lofts in the Cast Iron District into chic living spaces.
The movement for historical preservation was so successful that ordinary middle-class people were priced out of large sections of the City.
Pictures of the post-Sandy night skies brought back an old memory from fifty years ago when I was fifteen. The neighborhood I grew up in was developed in the 20s and 30s. In the early 60s, some of the old six-story prewar apartment buildings were torn down to be replaced by white brick high rises. For a few months one of these old red brick buildings was in ruins. This was my first direct experience of the picturesque. I used to go to the corner newsstand at night to buy a paper for my father. I’ll never forget the rubble of that old apartment building.
The great historian Eric Hobsbawn said in the late 1990s that New York had changed less in the post war years than most large cities. Think about it. The 7th Ave. and Lexington Ave. lines were opened in 1904. The last major addition to the system, the Jamaica IND line opened in 1937. The New York City Transit System wasn’t built in a day. But twenty-three years isn’t a long time to finish such a massive project Construction of the Second Avenue subway was started in 1961. It still is not finished.